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Physical Features of Scotland

Updated on April 24, 2014
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A country of striking natural beauty, Scotland is characterized by rugged hills and by deep glacial lakes known as lochs. It is almost entirely surrounded by the sea, which encroaches in deeply penetrating inlets and forms estuaries known as firths, at the mouths of rivers. The total area of 30,159 square miles (78,133 sq km) includes inland waters and 186 inhabited coastal islands.

Scotland's greatest length, from Dunnet Head in the northeast to the Mull of Galloway in the southwest, is usually stated at 287 miles (462 km). However, if the northern Orkney and Shetland islands are taken into account, the country stretches for nearly 450 miles (725 km). The breadth of the mainland attains 150 miles (240 km) at its widest point, which is between Applecross in the west and Buchan Ness in the east. Generally, though, it is much less than that and drops to 24 miles (39 km) between Loch Broom in the west and the Dornoch Firth in the east. The border isthmus separating Scotland from England comprises the Solway Firth, the Cheviot Hills, and the lower reaches of the Tweed River. There the breadth is about 60 miles (100 km), although the irregular and largely artificial border line measures full 100 miles (161 km).

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Land Regions

Traditionally, Scotland is divided geographically into the Highlands, the Central Lowlands, and the Southern Uplands, each with boundaries largely defined by geological features. Some authorities would add as a separate region the eastern corner around Aberdeen. Although this area falls into the Highlands as usually defined, it is essentially Lowland in character. In any case, much the larger part of Scotland consists of the Highlands. This is an area of mountain plateaus broken up by broad valleys, or straths, and narrower valleys, or glens. Apart from narrow strips of comparatively fertile coastline, which are much broader and more extensive on the east coast than on the west coast, the population is concentrated in the valleys.

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The Highland zone itself is split into two sections by the Great Glen of Scotland, which runs from Inverness on the east coast to near Fort William on the west. This natural depression with its chain of lochs was used for the construction of the Caledonian Canal. Southwest of the Great Glen lie the Grampian Mountains, traversing the country from northeast to southwest. These present, on their precipitous northern slopes, some of Scotland's wildest scenery. Ben Nevis (4,406 feet, or 1,343 meters), located in the southwestern Gramps, is the highest mountain in the British Isles. Four summits of the Cairngorm Mountains, a northernly group of the Grampians, exceed 4,000 feet (1,200 meters), and 543 other hills in the Highland zone are over 3,000 feet (900 meters). It is a common ambition of climbers to ascend all these hills; they are called Munroes, after the compiler of the first list of them, Sir Hugh T. Munro.

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South of the Highlands and occupying the "waist" of Scotland are the Central Lowlands. Their northern boundary may be taken to run from a few miles north of Glasgow northeastward almost to Aberdeen; their southern boundary, from south of the town of Ayr northeastward to Dunbar. Although described as Lowlands, this area contains an almost continuous line of hills between Renfrewshire in the southwest and the Sidlaw Hills, northwest of Dundee, but with natural gaps used by roads and railways. The highest hill in this region is Ben Cleuch (2,363 feet or 720 meters), in the detached range of the Ochil Hills in Fife. Between the Sidlaw Hills and the Highlands lie Strathmore, a fertile lowland area, and around Edinburgh the Lothian plain. Between these and other truly Lowland areas are often large tracts of moorland.

The Southern Uplands, the southernmost division of Scotland, are not very clearly marked off from the Central Lowlands. They consist of country not unlike the Highlands, but on a smaller scale and less elevated. The hills are usually rounded and grass-grown and the valleys wider and less rugged. The highest peak in this area is Mount Merrick (2,764 feet, or 842 meters), in the Galloway district. Many other hills in the Uplands exceed 2,000 feet (600 meters).

Coasts and Islands

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The west coast of Scotland is generally a wild, deeply indented mountain wall. Sea lochs or firths run deeply into the land and are themselves studded with islands. The Firth of Clyde, for example, encloses the islands of Arran, Bute, and The Cumbraes. The east coast also includes long sections of steep cliffs broken up by extensive stretches of low, sandy coast. The chief inlets on the east—the firths of Forth and Tay on the southeast, and the Moray, Cromarty, and Dornoch firths on the northeast—run far back into the coastal plain. The north coast is deeply indented by several narrow sea lochs, which have more in common with the western than with the eastern inlets.

There are nearly 800 islands in all of Scotland; however, most of them are uninhabited. Only a handful of these, including several used for lighthouses, lie off the east coast. Close to the north of the Scottish mainland lie the Orkney Islands and far to the northeast of them, the Shetlands, outposts of the early Norsemen. However, the great bulk of the Scottish islands are found on the west coast. They are mostly divided into two groups, the Inner and the Outer Hebrides. The former, reached by short ferry rides, stretch from Skye in the north to Islay in the south. The Outer Hebrides, sometimes called the "Long Island," lie 30 miles (48 km) or more out to sea, stretching from Lewis with Harris, which together make up one island, in the north, to Berneray in the south. Still farther to the west is the small group of islands collectively called St. Kilda.

Rivers and Lakes

Scotland is famous for its rivers and lakes. A considerable number of the largest rivers enter the sea as firths named for the rivers, as, for example, the firths of Forth and Clyde. Except for the Clyde, kept open by continual dredging, Scotland has hardly any navigable rivers. The Tay, Tweed, and many other rivers are well known for their salmon fishing.

There are few lakes in the Southern Uplands or Central Lowlands, the best known being St. Mary's Loch, in the Border country, and Loch Leven, famed for its trout fishing, near Kinross. The Highland zone contains a great many lakes, including Loch Lomond (28 square miles, or 72 sq km), the largest lake in all of Britain. Loch Katrine, in the heart of the Trossachs, is the source of Glasgow's water supply. Loch Earn, situated near Perth, is a headquarters for water sports. Loch Maree, in Ross county, and lochs Lochy, Ness, Nevis, and Oich, located in Inverness, are among those noted for their magnificent settings. Loch Ness has been a subject of a centuries-old controversy over an alleged monster in its depths.

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    • brutishspoon profile image

      Amy 3 years ago from Darlington, England

      Scotland is a lovely place especially the Highlands. Been on Loch Ness but never saw the monster.